One of the best experiences I’ve ever had watching a film was back in 2005 when the IFC Center in New York had just opened and I sat down to watch “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” a film that drew acclaim and buzz from Cannes, but yet I was completely unaware of the artist behind it. As someone from Southern California, I recognized the people and the places of its world — a suburbia not far from home — but at the same time felt its untapped possibility and wonder. Comforting without being entirely comfortable, it’s also a fair description for how I felt when I found myself sitting across from its kind, immaculately coiffed writer/director/star Miranda July six years later at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.
With her second film “The Future,” July has confirmed that the only thing rarer than her films is her distinctive voice as a filmmaker, developing a persona onscreen that’s sweet but slightly puzzled by modern life while maintaining a steady hand behind the camera acutely aware of both of her charms as an actress and the potential absurdity in her scenarios. And when you have a talking cat as a narrator as there is in “The Future,” that’s a fine line to toe. Yet Paw-Paw, as we come to know the chronically ill cat feebly voiced by July in the film, is a heartbreaking figure, a rescue kitten whose adoption by the reasonably well-adjusted Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) leads to thoughts of commitment the couple has never dealt with before as both are also trying to carve out new career paths.
Like everything else in July’s films, the 30-day wait before the couple can take in Paw Paw delivers some startlingly hard truths about their relationship and their station in life that will shake the core of anyone entering their mid-thirties, though the situation shouldn’t necessarily be confused with July’s own reality. A successful multimedia artist now married to “Beginners” director Mike Mills, she appears to be more in control of her destiny than ever, though the beauty of her art is her willingness to let destiny take hold of her. Still, as we discuss below, film is a more rigid medium to work in than most, making “The Future” even more of a marvel to behold.
After “Me and You,” I wrote a book of short stories and then did this performance. I was very determined not to jump into another movie because it seemed like that really wasn’t my process. That wasn’t what I had been doing for the 10 years before “Me and You.” And the performance evolved into the movie. It’s a very free medium for me, performing live is, so I think it was a good way back in. I didn’t have a lot of preconceptions like this could be in a movie or this can’t.
This would be considered a long gap for most filmmakers, but given that you’re used to self-publishing in a lot of the mediums you work in, do you feel a bit more inhibited when you approach something that takes as much planning as a film?
It’s always hard for sure. [pause] It wasn’t the best time. The recession had hit right around when we were going out for financing, so I remember realizing ohh, whereas if I had made this right after “Me and You,” I might’ve been able to have a bigger budget. This budget will have to be around the same size as the last movie or more, but not that much more. So there was that kind of reality check.
It was a weird process. We ended up working with a lot of the same people from the last movie – Film4 and this guy Roman Paul. But it’s a process. You start out thinking anyone could do this movie and then the partners that you have are the right ones, hopefully. And these people were like, “No, you don’t have to cast a big movie star. We understand your vision and we just want you to do your thing,” which you pay a price for that kind of faith. [smiles] And it’s in money and time.
The performance art that this film grew out of was primarily about infidelity, but it obviously grew to include many other themes. How did it evolve?
In a way, you take on themes kind of lightly in performance and then when you’re married to it for a movie, which is so much time and work, it’s like, okay, an affair is interesting to me, but it’s not that interesting. What’s more interesting is someone doing something not out of passion, which I’ve seen a million times before, but out of wanting to forsake their own soul and flee every idea of who they thought they were. That’s a really haunting horror movie-type thought for someone like me, who is all about commitment to my own way of thinking. That seemed very worthy of the intense work that a movie takes.
Do you find something that clicks for you that makes a feature idea different from, say, a performance art piece or a short story?
It is a little confusing, I’ll be honest. The kernel for this movie was the idea of this sudden breakup and someone trying to stop time in that moment when the breakup’s happening. I first tried to write it as a short story. That was awful. Then I did the performance, which was pretty successful, but very avant garde in its way, so it did bounce around.
I have ideas right now that I’m not sure whether they’re going to be fiction or a movie, but eventually, I think some things really could be either and it’s just a matter of what do I want to do now.
In both your films, the Internet has played a major role and I got the sense from "The Future" that it’s getting harder to stand out when there are so many artistic outlets available to so many people.
There’s a few things that I’m trying to get at with the Internet in the movie, but certainly one of them is if you’re trying to go within and find the essence of yourself, the Internet is not that helpful. [laughs] It’s useful for a lot of things, and it’s useful to see what other people are doing, so it’s exactly not what my character needs when she’s trying to make a dance and obsessively looking at other people’s dances. But what she feels in common is this base desire to be watched and be taken care of in a way by having an audience or knowing someone’s out there, which is putting the cart in front of the horse.
It’s funny. I do have a million deadlines in my head and I did feel like I had time breathing down my neck during this whole thing. I think some of that is just being 35 as opposed to 28 when I wrote my first movie. You have a sense of, “Oh, I’ll only get to make so many movies. I’ll only get to do so many things in my lifetime.” Even as time wore on and it took longer to make and all my friends started having kids, I was like oh okay, right. I always thought if I had a baby, it would be like a teen pregnancy. [laughs] Like I was so young. But then I was like, “Oh wait, not only am I not a teenager, soon, it’s going to be too late.” There were a lot of timelines in my head when I was making it. Some of them self-imposed, some of them really real, so I tried to put in placeholders for that.
Do these movies come together like a collage of different things going on in your life? You found Joe Putterlik [the late gentleman who charms in the film as a writer of dirty homemade cards to his wife] while purusing the PennySaver to break writer’s block.
That was kind of a unique case. I was particularly lost and stuck with the script when I decided to interview people in the PennySaver. It actually was the exact solution to the problem I was having, which had to do with Jason’s character [played by Hamish Linklater]. That seemed quite magical and in fact, I wrote it into the script, that it is in a simplified sense how Jason meets the old man is how I met him and I think there’s a lot of ideas that come in less beautiful ways. You get script notes. You fix it, you fix it again and so it’s nice when there’s a little bit of magic like that.
You’ve described yourself in the past as a strong feminist and during the introduction to the film at SXSW, you made reference to it by saying how proud you were to stand onstage with festival producer Janet Pierson. But one of my favorite things about your films to date is how well they connect to the real world and yet seem apart from it and I’m wondering whether you actually even see your characters in terms of gender.
I don’t mind being called a strong feminist, but you’re actually pointing out something that I haven’t consciously thought, but is probably a pretty big thing. While I’m willing to go really deep as far as weirdness to get across a feeling, I don’t really want to make my characters so extreme that they can do alienating things or things that are surprising. But as people, they have almost a certain flatness, like not a hundred percent real. In that sense, [they] are slightly genderless or you could compare them to friends of either gender you have or yourself. I don’t want to overdetermine them and make them so fully fleshed out people that they fill in all the blanks and don’t leave room for the audience. It’s a lighter touch that I’m trying to have.
Lately, transmedia has become a very popular term and out of anybody, it would seem like that might be something that would interest you. Have you considered a project spread across several mediums, including film?
I remember with this movie, saying to Gina Kwon, my producer, we’re a little too early with this movie to do something a little more radical, as far as getting it out there or even how it’s financed. We just have to get through [“The Future”] with the old model, but there was part of me that was like, “Awww, I don’t feel like I have a massive audience, but I feel like it’s there and it’s pretty online.” It wouldn’t be that hard to make something and have it have a whole life through the Internet that kind of freed me from normal financing and even distribution maybe. I know a million people are having this thought much more eloquently. So I’m really curious how I’ll do the next one. It’ll probably be as long in between because I have a lot of other stuff to do. But maybe that’s a good thing. By then, there will be some new venues that don’t look like a compromise to me.
“The Future” opens today at the IFC Center in New York, where she'll appear for Q & As on July 29th and 30th, and will open on August 5th in Los Angeles before expanding into limited release. A full schedule can be found here.